UN, WTO and now WHO: Ailing Acronyms All

Multilateral institutions are flailing to uphold mandates. The arrangement of power and authority deters change. Grand declarations of socio-economic development are stalled amidst political promiscuity, contextual convenience.

By Shankkar Aiyar | Published: 12th April 2020 04:00 AM |

What’s past, the Bard wrote in The Tempest, is prologue. In real life, while ‘thoughts are free’ as Shakespeare said, acts of omission and commission come at a price.

In September 2019, the World Health Organisation, in its report ‘A World at Risk’, warned about ‘Disease X’ and stated, “The world is not prepared for a fast-moving, virulent respiratory pathogen pandemic.” Invoking the horror of the 1918 pandemic, it warned that a similar contagion could result in 50–80 million deaths.

Forewarned, as it turns out, is not necessarily forearmed. In November 2019, Wuhan and the world, was abuzz about an unknown affliction. It didn’t quite stir the WHO. On December 31, 2019, China informed the WHO that ’41 persons were suffering from pneumonia of unknown cause’. Yet, curiously, on January 14, 2020, despite the ‘cluster of infection’, the WHO declared that preliminary investigations “found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus”. Indeed, the declaration of ‘pandemic’ arrived only on March 11.

It was not that the WHO lacked information. Taiwan, the outlier in containment of COVID-19, did warn the WHO. But such is the hold of politics that the warnings of Taiwan, which is precluded from being a member by China, were ignored. Japan’s deputy prime minister Taro Aso remarked that the WHO is now being called the Chinese Health Organisation.

The fallout of failure is manifest. Over 17 lakh persons are afflicted and the Wuhan virus has left over 1,03,800 dead. Two-thirds of the world is under lockdown. Trillions of dollars — in global savings and revenues — has been wiped out. World GDP is contracting by the day, millions have lost jobs and the IMF reports that 90 countries across the world are seeking assistance.

Last week, US President Donald Trump, called out the WHO and suspended funding to the WHO. Without prejudice, and most charitably, it can be safely said that when the post-mortem — the history of the pandemic — is written, the conduct of the WHO will not come out smelling good.

The WHO is not the only multilateral institution that is flailing. The same is true of the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, the IMF and the World Bank who have their share of critics and critique, and many other allied and subsidiary intentions of global institutions.

The UN’s Preamble states the determination “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” and “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights”. One factoid spells the state of promise eloquently. It is now nine years since the eruption of civil war in Syria and five years since Nilufer Demir’s image of Alyan Kurdi shocked the world. Little has changed for refugees or in Syria.

The WTO was set up to “ensure that trade flows as smoothly” to enable employment, optimal use of resources and sustainable development. Consensus has eluded it since the 1997 Doha round and the WTO was even declared ‘esta muerta’ at Cancun! A quarter of a century after the grand Marrakesh Declaration, the WTO largely hosts disputes, and trade blocs host free trade agreements.

The constitution of the WHO obliges the multilateral institution set up to act as the directing and coordinating authority on international health “to stimulate and advance work to eradicate epidemic, endemic and other diseases”. Yet over 100 days after the Wuhan disclosure as the world struggles to deal with the pandemic, there is no template yet on testing and treatment, the protocols and processes are as varied as the number of affected entities.

It would be seductive to blame bureaucratic bloat of these entities and the super power manoeuvres. The deflation of stated moral imperatives stems from inherent conceptual and structural flaws. There is the legacy of the Westphalian template, at its core the covenant of sovereignty is intact and often multilateral objectives are in conflict with individual states. There is also operational structure — elected and selected leadership, beneficiaries of geopolitical choices are vulnerable to whims of the votes!

The arrangement of power and authority deters change. And this is embedded in the design. The archaic architecture of veto power with the Security Council, has left the piety of the UN preamble stranded in words. Give and take politics, not professionalism or merit, determines who is chosen for the top jobs. And speculation and innuendo have haunted decisions — or indecision in the case of Wuhan virus.

The voting structure and quotas have institutionalised super-creditor beleaguered-borrower apartheid at the multilateral lending and aid institutions. The pile up of disputes at WTO has much to do with the wreckage of appointments blocked by power blocs.

The issues are known and there is much literature on what needs to be done. There is also an occasion coming up — the 75th Anniversary of the UN. Declarations and conviction about changing critical human conditions can scarcely afford the luxury of political promiscuity, of contextual convenience.

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, if the world fails to hang together it will most assuredly hang separately.

Shankkar Aiyar, political economy analyst, is author of ‘The Gated Republic –India’s Public Policy Failures and Private Solutions’ which is releasing in May, ‘Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12-Digit Revolution’; and ‘Accidental India’. You can email him at shankkar.aiyar@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @ShankkarAiyar. His previous columns can be found here. This column was first published here.



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Shankkar Aiyar

Journalist-Analyst. Author of ‘Accidental India, ‘Áadhaar: A Biometric History’ and ‘The Gated Republic’. Studying how politics rules the economics of people!